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TRAVEL INSIDER : Helicopters Churn Up Noise, Safety Questions : Tours: As complaints grow, national parks consider altitude restrictions over areas such as Grand Canyon.


The price is steep, but the view is impossible to beat. And so helicopter tours have become a fixture at many of this country's most spectacular destinations.

But as their popularity spreads, so have complaints from the ground about noise, occasionally joined by questions about safety. The result is a thorny question for travelers: If we hand over the $100 or $175 for an hour's flight, are we putting ourselves at risk or unfairly compromising the experience of other travelers on the ground?

And now, two new developments in Washington, D.C., could substantially change the helicopter tour business.

One is the anticipated release this summer of a long-delayed National Park Service study that will assess the effects of helicopter overflight and could conceivably lead to new minimum-altitude requirements over sensitive areas.

The other possible action is the imposition of fees on tour operators--who now fly free over national parks--as a deficit-fighting element in the economic package approved in May by the House of Representatives.

Both prospects are loudly contested and raise the question of where and how helicopters should fit into our national park system.

The current copter scene: At the Grand Canyon--the helicopter tour capital of the United States--a silence-versus-access controversy has simmered for several years. In the Hawaiian Islands, last year's Hurricane Iniki has led some pilots to relocate from storm-damaged Kauai to the volcanic slopes of the Big Island--where their presence is angering many Big Island residents. Even the Honolulu Advertiser, a publication long sensitive to the economic benefits of tourism, recently registered its disapproval.

"Helicopters have intruded upon the serenity of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to the point where they are no longer welcome," the daily newspaper editorialized on March 29.

Meanwhile, helicopter industry officials are organizing to defend themselves. Writing in the May issue of Rotor & Wing, editor David Jensen decried critics of the helicopter tour industry as "self-serving and hypocritical," and asserted that "were people allowed to see a national park solely from aircraft and not from buses, cars, inflated rafts or on foot, the park would remain pristine."

Jensen also warned that the National Park Service seems to be after "no less than the elimination of aerial sightseeing." Park Service officials say they are merely gathering information, though spokesman Duncan Morrow notes that "the character of a park visit is affected fundamentally by noise, and helicopters are fundamentally noisy critters."

Certainly, they are busy critters. By the estimate of the Helicopter Assn. International, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group that includes about 300 helicopter tour operators, more than 1.2 million passengers joined helicopter tours in 1992.

According to a recent association survey of its members--apparently the first of its kind--most of those passengers were hovering over the Grand Canyon (27.6%), followed by the Hawaiian Islands (24.2%), metropolitan New York (13.6%), southeast Alaska (6.7%), and St. Louis and its Gateway Arch (2.7%). (Authorities say that Niagara Falls probably belongs on this list as well, but that many of its aerial tour companies evidently don't belong to the association.)

The average helicopter tour lasts about half an hour and runs about $100 per person--figures that can quickly add up to big numbers. At the Grand Canyon alone, some estimates put all aerial tour revenues--the income of small planes as well as helicopters--as high as $100 million a year.

"People really enjoy these things, and they're willing to pay for them," says Anna Minaya, manager of legislative affairs for the Helicopter Assn. International.

When park regulation began: The air tour business dates back decades for both planes and helicopters, but attracted only limited attention from park officials until the June, 1986, collision of a sightseeing helicopter and a small plane over the Grand Canyon.

Twenty-five people died in the crash. Congress responded with the National Parks Overflight Act, signed in August, 1987. Under that measure, the National Park Service established no-fly zones over 44% of the Grand Canyon National Park area and confined most flights on the canyon's busy east end to two corridors, each two miles wide. A study was to be made of noise volumes and visitor attitudes.

(The legislation also specifically banned helicopters from flying too close to the 10,000-foot-high Haleakala Crater on Maui, and forbade non-emergency aircraft from flying within 2,000 feet of the floor or walls of Yosemite Valley. Thus, although they may complain of congestion on the ground in Yosemite, visitors there won't see helicopters overhead.)

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